Being a GM that loves to think up of plots, complications and stories for the player characters of my games, it’s humbling to run into those few moments that remind you that Roleplaying Games are a genre of their own. As any GM who has run a session or two will attest, nothing goes exactly as planned. Changes might be small insignificant deviations, or escalate to full blown, FUBAR scenarios.
After running games for a while, it’s easy to get sidetracked and start thinking of rpgs as a story. I’ve been guilty of this a few times, ending up stressed after my expectations of what the characters would do were blown out of the water by what the players opted to do.
Sometimes, the issue is really a lack of communication. One classic example was in my first foray to using HERO 5th Edition Revised, when I was running a Teen Superheroes Campaign. The situation was a heated battle, wherein a stray shot from the villain cleaved off a chunk of a nearby building, sending it tumbling towards the civilians below. The team’s speedster ran to intercept, going so far to take a significant amount of damage and breaking his character’s shoulder in an attempt to ram the falling debris away. He was successful in rescuing the civilians below, and was feeling pretty good about pulling off a great heroic self-sacrifice for the good of others when another player quipped, “What the hell did you do that for? They’re only civilians!”
Instant mood killer.
The game almost stopped immediately as myself and three others tried to drive home the fact that civilians DO matter in the game, because it’s a game about superheroes. I had to struggle uphill to get the session back to it’s normal pace but ended before I could recover any further momentum.
In that case it was possibly a case of different perceptions of comic books. I started reading comics back in the 1980′s with Spider-man. Considering the outspoken player was younger than I am, he may have been indoctrinated to the admittedly questionable morals of the Iron Age of comics. Given the disconnect with the assumptions and “Acceptable” behaviors among both ends of the spectrum, it’s no wonder then that I was getting the impression that his character was needlessly dark.
Another case of subtle differences between rpgs and stories in general is that in stories, the writer has no problem with what the characters will be doing. Writers sometimes speak of “characters coming to life”, and “being surprised at what the characters do” in their stories, but I suspect that it’s not quite the same thing when you’re running a game for different people with very different ideas on how to react to a situation.
I offer, as an example, the same superhero game. The “They’re only civilians” player was now in control of a character that was essentially the setting’s answer to a Nanite-powered supersoldier, devised by the military to stop Hulk-level threats that most modern armies would be useless against. Unfortunately, when I sprung a bizarre magically-powered villain at them that seemingly had powers that were beyond the player’s ability to accurately judge or measure his combat potential, the player opted that his super-patriotic Nanite superhero would be the first to flee the scene and abandon the investigation, leaving only the teenaged heroes played by the others to fend the villain off.
As you can see, GMing tends to be a tricky thing. At times things flow naturally when players get into the right groove of things and play off each other. At other times… well, it’s like looking at a train wreck. It’s horrible, but you can’t look away.
Manage your expectations. Remember that rpgs aren’t stories and vice versa. RPGs work best when everyone is on the same page so remember to work it out with your players. Finally learn to throw away your notes. Sooner or later your players will find a way to throw all your plans out the window anyway, so you’d best learn to cope and run things on the fly without feeling bad for yourself. After all, even if your plans were ditched this session, you could always find a workaround to recycle that unused plot hook further down the line.